Tonight, we are holding a family summit before we jet off on holiday to Croatia in the morning. The main item on the agenda will be the controversial issue of screen time, which has felicitously just hit the headlines with horror stories about our collective addiction.
Incidentally, virtual reality would not be such an issue were we booked into a gorgeous luxury hotel with endless facilities, clubs and sporting activities.
Except that we are staying in a tiny apartment and, as I somehow failed to register that the advertised sofa bed was not, in fact, a bed at all, but a shiny fake leather sofa, somebody (probably me) is going to wake up a bit grumpy every morning.
Anyway, I digress. Just as with any other high-level meetings, there have been informal pre-talks to avoid a no-deal scenario. So far, they’ve gone like this...
Me: “A new report has shown that some people spend the equivalent of a day every week on their phone; they check it every 12 minutes. Isn’t that shocking?”
The nine-year-old: “You’re always blaming me. I don’t even have a phone. It’s so unfair.”
Me: “You don’t need one because you creep into my bedroom at 6am every morning and steal mine, then move on to the laptop.”
The nine-year-old: “Would you rather I woke you up and asked you to make my breakfast?”
Me: “That’s a rather judgmental way of putting it, but no.”
The 16-year-old: “I have to be on Snapchat all day or I won’t have any friends. I’m amassing social capital.”
Me: “Why don’t you just call up and speak to them?”
The 16-year-old: “Wha-at? You can make calls on a mobile?”
She may be joking. Then again, who knows? A separate Ofcom study has revealed that phones are no longer being used for their intended purpose because the joy of anti-social media means millennials can endlessly communicate while never having to look one another in the eye.
If you’ve ever been compelled to join a WhatsApp group, it soon transpires that a great many people of all ages would rather send increasingly banal hen-do suggestions to a load of strangers than do virtually anything else.
Just this week I’ve been press-ganged into a WhatsApp group organising a surprise bash for Michelle’s 50th birthday. I don’t know who she is, but I’m sorely tempted to wade in. “Guys, and apologies if you consider that to be a sexist form of address, but the one thing Michelle would love more than anything is for all her friends to join her in a body painting class. It’s quite ‘out there’, but hey, you know Michelle! And if you don’t, you’ve no business organising her party. Smiley thumbs-up emoji.”
Anyway, back at Woods Towers, my two girls have suggested that none of us needs phones or laptops at all because we could just enjoy each other’s company like last year.
This is because in the summer of 2017, we went off-grid. Not intentionally — just that our remote cottage in Skye [an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland] had no mobile reception, no landline and no internet. And we all agreed it was fabulous, which it was. We birdwatched, nature-walked — the girls stroked a sunbathing slow worm — climbed hills, messed around in boats and had one of our best-ever breaks.
But that’s what happens in temperate climes; you get stuck in. Besides which, we brought another family along to play with.
Hot weather, on the other hand, promotes lethargy — in adults, at any rate. On the island of Bra?, it will just be us and there are only so many rounds of Cheat we can play indoors during the midday heat. We are absolutely not going tech-free.
Me: “How many hours do you think is reasonable to spend on a screen in one day?”
The 16-year-old: “One-and-a-half.”
The nine-year-old: “One hour.”
Me: “Do you know how long you were on your individual screens for yesterday? Five hours.”
And why was that? Because Mummy was on her screen first, apparently. Tragic but true. In my defence, I was working, but my offspring see no pressing difference between earning a living and getting really good at Roblox or watching animal rescue channels on YouTube.
Of course, we all know we’re hooked, and that social media companies go out of their way to keep us hooked so we have no concept of the passage of time.
But digital dependence is catching; that’s why you see entire families together but apart, each focused on their smartphone. Even if my younger daughter and I have to wrestle over who gets to play Scrabble on my iPhone.
This week, scientists announced that there is a planet called Kepler-452b, a mere 1,400 light years away, which has ideal conditions to support life. My younger daughter’s response: “Wow! Does that mean it has WiFi?”
It does not have WiFi, but our Croatian flat does (see, I did pay attention to some details). This evening, however, I shall gravely inform the children that the internet is only be switched on twice a day for 45 minutes at a time and that any devices plugged in beyond this cut-off point will have all their software corrupted. Books are a risk-free option.
Having managed expectations thus, once we get there I may whisper to the teenager that the living room does sometimes get an additional WiFi signal late in the evening.
That way I get to sleep, while she amasses social capital from the sticky plastic sofa. I’m so pleased with my ingenuity that I’m sorely tempted to tell a bunch of strangers on WhatsApp.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018. Judith Woods is a columnist and writes features for The Daily Telegraph.